Writing Secrets From the Greatest Advertising Copywriter of All Time
Forget conventional grammar, and discover how to really get your thoughts across to readers
The Brilliance Breakthrough by Eugene Schwartz is the strangest, yet the most valuable, book on writing prose you’ll ever read.
If you write for money, fun or to spread your ideas, you need it.
If you’ve ever struggled with expressing your ideas clearly.
Or with how long your sentences should be.
Or wondered why readers didn’t understand you, and how to fix the problem.
Its subtitle is: “How to Talk and Write So That People Will Never Forget You.”
Whether you write novels, salesletters or stories here on Medium, isn’t that your goal?
Schwartz guides you to discover how to write with power, clarity and style.
In the world of direct response copywriting, Schwartz is revered
But if you’ve never studied writing to sell, you may not have heard of him.
Details of his early career are sparse, but apparently he started out as an advertising agency copywriter in the 1950’s.
Clearly, he had an original mind. His first book, Breakthrough Advertising, came out in 1966. It’s still widely considered the greatest book on copywriting ever published. He didn’t just excel at the same marketing concepts and copywriting techniques everybody else used, he came up with his own.
He was the Einstein of direct response, overturning the Newtonian world with his discovery of relativity. He rewrote the rules, and everybody from Gary Halbert to Agora has used them ever since.
By all accounts, he was an interesting and complex man. His income from copywriting allowed him to live with his wife as a sophisticated Manhattanite and art collector. Yet, to remain in touch with ordinary people, he read every issue of The National Enquirer and watched every hit movie.
He also practiced his version of the Pomodoro Technique before it was even devised. When he sat down to write, he set a kitchen timer for 33 minutes, and didn’t stop until it dinged.
The Brilliance Breakthrough is about writing prose in general. But, as he did with selling in print in Breakthrough Marketing, he tosses all the conventional concepts into the garbage, and re-thinks how to write with the greatest impact— starting from scratch.
The first thing you have to do Is throw out everything you’ve learned about conventional grammar
To Schwartz, all language is composed of just two parts.
Forget nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and adverbs.
To write to communicate, think of:
- Picture words
These contain an image inside them: “Bob,” “mountain,” “red,” “slowly” and “hope.” Yes, even though “hope” is abstract, it’s a picture word.
2. Connecting words
These are the “other” words. Their function is to link, connect and direct readers so you get your meaning across.
They include: “the,” “in,” “therefore” and “but.”
Some simple sentences may contain only picture words. He uses the example of “I hit Harry.” throughout the book.
However, most sentences will need connecting words, such as “in the” as in: “I hit Harry in the nose.”
I admit, this isn’t how I would teach English as a Second Language. Schwartz’s system does presuppose you already know the basics of grammar and English sentence structure. You still need to know how to make subjects and verbs agree with each other.
However, for the purpose of coding your thoughts so your readers can immediately decode — understand — them, it’s great.
Simple, yet effective.
How well you communicate depends on how well you combine picture and connecting words
You’ve probably read the advice to use short sentences. And that’s generally true. Readers can’t handle too many words at once.
But mainly it’s about how many separate images you try to convey within a sentence.
Pile image upon image or try to use the same picture word in separate images, and you confuse your reader.
Schwartz includes examples to show how many writers confuse readers by jumbling the pictures up — and he shows how to fix these problems.
Above all, Schwartz stresses your goal is for your readers to understand your sentences — immediately.
Not after rereading them two or three times, but IMMEDIATELY.
Schwartz gives his simple rules for allowing this to happen.
He also gives examples. One sentence out of a book on economics is long and confusing, full of images crowded together. Schwartz walks you through the steps of how the writer could have rewritten the sentence to make it a simple and clear passage of eleven separate sentences.
He also takes a sentence from an Ernest Hemingway short story. Although it’s even longer than the sentence from the book on economics, it works. That’s because Hemingway kept his pictures separate and well-connected. He controlled how his readers experienced the flow of images.
Usually, shorter sentences work better than long ones. But to write effectively, you need to understand why — and how to use picture and connecting words together for maximum effect.
Not. Just. Write. Short.
Excess words are excessive when the extra images they convey confuse the reader.
What else you’ll find in this quirky book full of unusual advice your writing instructors will never teach:
The three rules for making prose clear and simple.
The 3 types of connectors and how to use them to make your prose flow smoothly — and so your reader understands what you’re saying.
The maximum number of words to use to make one image complete.
The 2 keys to simplicity.
How to define prose “simplicity” mathematically.
The type of word that simplifies your prose so readers can understand what you’re saying. The more of them your writing contains, the simpler your writing is.
The 4 causes of misunderstanding in prose — and how to fix them.
Why you should balance simplicity with variety and emphasis.
It sounds like a paradox — but the simpler your thought is, the longer the sentence explaining it can be.
3 ways to create emphasis.
How to use pivot words to write with greater sophistication, using wit, puns, metaphor and suspense.
How to structure your overall piece.
The Brilliance Breakthrough is about how to write with power and style.
NOT style that’s “beautiful,” but style that conveys your thoughts to the reader.
Where to buy Schwartz’s books
They are currently in print thanks to Brian Kurtz, the former marketing director for Boardroom Press. Back in the 1970’s, the founder of Boardroom, Martin Edelston, paid Schwartz $2,000 to write the first ad to sell a Boardroom product. In the 1980’s, Schwartz wrote many of Boardroom’s most successful direct mail packages.
In return, Kurtz is keeping Schwartz’s two books in print.
(NOTE: These are not affiliate links. Brian Kurtz doesn’t know me from Adam, and I get zippo whether you buy them or not. It’s up to you.)
My opinion: if you write or edit anything, The Brilliance Breakthrough will help you understand how to communicate to your readers with skill and energy.
If you write to sell, you also want to read Breakthrough Advertising.